Philadelphia hosts consecrated virgins

Becoming a consecrated virgin, says Judith Stegman, means there's one thing you'll do without - obviously - and one you'll definitely need:

A sense of humor.

In the era of The Bachelorette and Dating Naked, of Fifty Shades of Grey and Snoop Dogg's "Ain't No Fun (If the Homies Can't Have None)," a woman who chooses to live in reverent chastity can seem a curiosity.

" 'Are you married?' - it's a common question," Stegman said. "I say, 'Well, I have a ring. I'm a consecrated virgin in the Catholic Church, and that means I'm married to Christ.'"

Stegman, 58, is president of the U.S. Association of Consecrated Virgins, dozens of whom gathered Wednesday at the Philadelphia Archdiocese's offices to talk about their lives in advance of a formal convocation in Malvern.

The national conference, taking place from Tuesday through Friday, is expected to draw virgin candidates, bishops, priests, spiritual directors, and others interested in a vocation that's making something of a comeback.

In simplest terms, a woman who becomes a consecrated virgin becomes a bride to Jesus, a devotion that includes her permanent physical virginity.

They're rare. The United States is home to 215 among about 3,000 worldwide, with Italy and France accounting for a third. The Philadelphia Archdiocese is believed to have one or two, according to the association.

On Tuesday, members of a mostly older nine-women panel were asked whether they felt they had missed out - on sex, marriage, or children.

"I can honestly say I have no regrets," said Linda Ann Long, 70, a recently retired Minneapolis cardiologist, as other women shook their heads in agreement. "While I'm often alone with my divine spouse, I'm almost never lonely."

There's no test to tell whether someone is truly a virgin, the woman said. But when the church says virgin, it means virgin. The requirement for true virginity is fully impressed upon candidates, with the expectation that those who cannot comply will step away.

Some women said they realized that in modern society, drenched as it is in sexual imagery, it might seem unusual for someone to intentionally remain a virgin.

"Virginity is dissed today," said Margaret Flipp, 73, a consecrated virgin from Chicago.

Several said that when social conversation turned to husbands and children, they were pleased for the chance to discuss their marriage to Jesus. One described herself as "married to the CEO."

"She no longer belongs to herself when she's consecrated," said Marie Beccaloni, a 29-year-old virgin and parish secretary from Chicago. "She belongs to Christ."

For decades, Caroline Blaszczyk, 65, lived a dedicated single life, taking care of her sick mother and working a government job.

"I began to feel I was a spouse of the Lord," she said, "and began wearing a ring."

She was 51 when she learned there was such a person as a consecrated virgin, and 59 when she became one.

The decision wasn't complicated - she simply acted on what she felt in her heart, moving deeper into her spirituality.

"It was something the Lord was doing in my life," she said.

The consecration ranks among the oldest sacraments in the church, but was abandoned around the 10th century. It was reinstated in 1970, following the Vatican II conference, and since then has become more publicized and better known.

The ceremony looks much like a traditional wedding, one in which the diocesan bishop consecrates the virgin to God. The women usually wear white, often a wedding gown. They take a ring. But instead of speaking traditional vows with a groom, the women express their love for Jesus.

The woman "comes forward and says, 'I offer this gift of the virginity that Christ has given to me, I offer it back,' " Stegman said.

Typically, consecrated virgins are deeply involved in the church. They usually attend daily Mass and spend considerable time in private prayer.

They wear no habit or special clothes, enter no convent, carry no title such as "Sister."

They get no financial support from the church, earning their living like anyone else, through a job or pension. In this country, they work as teachers, social workers, nurses, and physicians. One is a firefighter. Another teaches dance.

Stegman, a certified public accountant, ran her own firm in Michigan, leaving it recently to devote more time to religious study.

She said she was about 14 when she realized Jesus was summoning her to a special relationship, "a very personal and intimate relationship."

Not knowing of consecration, she spent years searching, wondering what the Lord wanted for her. Then at age 38, she happened to read an article about consecrated virgins.

"I said, 'This is me.' "